The Japanese domestic car market is like a forbidden box that bestows its benefits upon us when we finally open it – minus the negatives of Pandora’s box. When Japanese economy boomed back in the eighties, their carmakers got engaged in unscrupulous war whose purpose was to please prospective buyers with plenty of pocket money to spare. That money was often intended for sports cars, and Japanese automakers duly delivered. When bubble economy finally exploded in early nineties, JDM dried up with it. By then, however, Japanese automakers produced plethora of praiseworthy amazing cars. Cars that are worthy of consideration. Especially if import doesn’t represent a problem for you.
So what is a JDM Car?
In short, a JDM car is a vehicle originally built exclusively for the Japanese Domestic Market, notably performance cars and high-powered luxury vehicles. These vehicles were built with Japanese regulations in mind, and often didn’t conform to overseas rules, making them very difficult to import. Today, the USA allows JDM imports providing that the models in question are eligible for import. To satisfy US requirements, any importer must ensure that the car was built a minimum of 25 years ago so that they no longer have to conform to EPA and FMVSS regulations. Otherwise, these cars will be illegal to drive on US highways.
Popular JDM sports cars for sale include the likes of the JDM Skyline GTR, or Toyota Supra JZA80 and Honda NSX. But there’s more to Japanese Domestic Market cars than Nissan Skyline GT-R, Honda Integra Type R, Nissan Silvia S13, Mazda RX7, and the Mitsubishi Evolution.
Like most amazing cars made in Japan, these became widely acclaimed and immensely popular all across the globe. Others, though, kept slumbering in the land of the rising sun. This doesn’t mean they aren’t any good. They simply never became instant classics like the aforementioned models. This can be accredited to numerous factors. Bad marketing, wrong timing, market satiation… Or they simply didn’t meet overseas market requirements at the time. Whichever’s the case, after 25 years, they all become eligible to be imported into the US. If you’re looking for a list of obvious Subaru Impreza WRX STI models, then prepare to be disappointed: Here are some of the best JDM cars that you’ve probably never heard about.
First up, we have one of the most beautiful JDM classic cars of all time! The flagship Toyota limousine that’s never been offered anywhere outside of Japan is quite likely one of their best cars ever. Not only does it offer premium level of luxury fit for Japanese political cream, but it also packs more than a fair amount of heat coming from large displacement engines. Toyota even produced a Royal edition of the limo. As its name suggests, the Toyota Century Royal serves as the official state car used by none other than the Emperor of Japan.
First generation models which ran between 1967 and 1997 (with very few cosmetic changes) offered three distinctive engines. 3.0L V8 between ’67 and ’73, 3.4L V8 between ’73 and ’82, and 4.0L V8 between ’82 and ’97. In 1997, Century received its first extensive (take term extensive with a grain of salt here) facelift and a new engine. 5.0L 1GZ-FE V12 conservatively rated at 276 horsepower due to gentlemen’s agreement between Japanese automakers was the first ever Toyota V12 engine. Moreover, Century was the first and only Japanese car with front engine layout and rear-wheel drive.
Even though it’s donned with a Toyota badge, Century sits atop Japanese maker’s lineup. A car that got its name after 100th birthday of Toyota Industries’ founder Sakichi Toyoda, sits above the most expensive Lexuses (or is it Lexi?). In its latest years, it warranted a price tag of more than $100,000. But Toyota Century wasn’t available in just about any Toyota dealership. It was only sold in special Toyota Store dealership network in Japan. And only executives drove it, or rather drove in it. Unlike most other luxurious limos, Century wasn’t intended for wealth-flaunting businessmen. Instead, it was marketed as a car that should be earned through persistent work. A type of work that yields success.
Although the FTO came after Japanese bubble economy burst, Mitsubishi’s sports compact was so good that it reminisced JDM’s golden era. The car whose acronyms stood for Fresh Touring Origination even won the Car of the Year award in its home market. It was so desired that Australian, UK and New Zealand sports car enthusiasts even forced Mitsubishi to start offering FTO on a regular basis in their own markets. Grey market has been known to have such influence on an automaker before.
At first, front-wheel drive sports coupe came with 1.8L in-line four capable of generating 123 horsepower. That figure’s comparable to what the Mazda MX-5 Miata was offering back then (128 hp from identical displacement). Sports package meant – not only upgraded figures – but a whole new engine altogether. 2.0L V6 delivered 168 horsepower, while the same mill with Mitsubishi Innovative Valve timing Electronic Control system (MICEV) put up 197 ponies. Strongest option was reserved for special edition models, however. Models like GPX Car of the Year limited edition from 1995 or GP and GP Special from 1996 and 1997.
Despite making it to some non-Japanese markets via back entrance (grey market), the Mitsubishi FTO never made it into the states. It never would have passed the US safety regulations. Exact reason why it got axed come millennium time. Japanese safety regulations also got much more stricter and the Mitsubishi brass decided they couldn’t be bothered about a car without the necessary pedigree, favoring sportier models like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.
The Toyota Chaser was a line of 4-door mid-size sedans which ran between 1977 and 2001. During JDM market’s performance peak, the Chaser was in its fourth (’89-’92) and fifth (’92-’96) generation. Although the mid-size sedan from Toyota won’t cause any stirs today (plenty of Camry’s around), a Chaser imported to the US certainly would. Well, not at first sight, though. It’s what’s under its hood that would get the job done.
Performance versions of the Toyota Chaser shared their straight-six engines with the Toyota Supra. Fourth generation models, thus came with A70 Supra’s twin-turbo 1GZ-GTE engines, while fifth gen units sported A80 Supra’s 2GZ-GTE mills, both rated at 276 horsepower. There were other available engines as well, but none as flashy and quirky as the fabled Toyota GZ mills.
The Toyota Chaser is basically another brick in long and high wall of what if’s. One of the best Japanese sedans ever made would have been a fine addition to Toyota’s North American fleet. Not to mention that it’s probably the closest thing we’ve ever gotten to a 4-door Supra. Instead, US buyers got the Camry. The thing is: none of the US spec Camry’s from early nineties came with 300 ponies at tap. At best, they made half that figure.
Mazda Cosmo is not just one of the most amazing Japanese cars ever made – it’s also one of the most sought after JDM cars that we hadn’t had the chance to buy. But, arguably the most prolific Mazda car in history which served as Wankel rotary engine’s launch pad and survived for four generations, was more than that.
Original sports car from the late sixties is more than well known, but final models have managed to fall into obscurity by now. They didn’t even have the Mazda badge and were instead marketed under Eunos badge. One of three available separate Mazda divisions back then. Eunos Cosmo built upon JC platform which underpinned nothing else than the luxury touring coupe, to date remains Mazda’s only triple-rotor engined vehicle. Set of three 654 cc chambers equaled to almost 2.0L total displacement. Under 10 psi of boost and dual turbos, this setup generated around 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque. Thanks to these numbers, luxury tourer was able to max out at almost 160 mph.
For those less enthusiastic about speed, Mazda also offered a more conservative dual-chamber rotary engine. More conservative only on paper, though. For this 1.3L 13B-RE setup still generated a whopping 235 horsepower. In that respect, one can say that slow Eunos Cosmo didn’t exist. Now you know why we consider it one of the most awesome cars ever to have come out of Japan.
Mazda Lantis Type R
The Mazda Lantis, on its own, is just another ordinary and not overly inspiring hatchback for the Japanese market. Add the well-known Type R moniker (more common in modern-day Hondas) behind its name, and it’s suddenly become an amazing JDM car. This 5-door hot hatch was as hot as Japanese cars came back between 1993 and 1996.
The Lantis Type R was motivated by 168-horsepower 2.0L Mazda K V6 engine. Not exactly otherworldly figure (especially compared to contemporary Type R hot hatches), but more than plentiful for a car weighing 2,650 pounds. Lantis was capable of hitting 60 mph from standstill in 7.8 seconds and doing quarter miles in 16 seconds. Well, no one said it was a muscle car. It did come with 1.38 brake horsepower per cubic inch, though.
This frameless window hatch with huge roofline spoiler would have never caught on in the US back then. Even with all of its strong points. Still, we can be justly depressed by the fact Mazda doesn’t offer anything similar in the US even today. There are the hot Focus, Honda Civic Type R and Golf, but no hot 5-door hatch Mazda 3. 2.5L Skyactiv 4-cylinder with 184 horsepower might be balancing between power and economy, but it’s nowhere near as capable as the hot hatches mentioned above.
The Autozam is another one of three mentioned Mazda marques (other two being Eunos and ɛ̃fini). AZ-1 is a super compact sports car marketed by them. It wasn’t actually built by Mazda. Suzuki stands behind this unscrupulous Kei car with gullwing doors. Mazda only helped with its distribution in Japan.
Apart from gullwing doors, this supermini also sported mid-engined layout and rear-wheel drive. One can easily mistake it for a supercar by wading through these specs alone. Still, Autozam AZ-1 lacks the performance bit. Its meager 657 cc straight-three engine only delivers 63 hp and 64 lb-ft of torque. Weighing less than 1,600 pounds, AZ-1 hardly needed more, though. Otherwise, it would have probably had trouble remaining on the ground.
By the time Mazda finally started selling Suzuki’s offspring in 1992, Japan was hit by economic recession. Only 4,392 units were produced before AZ-1 got axed the following year. In addition, Suzuki marketed 531 cars on their own. These sported minor cosmetic differences, fog lights and Cara nameplate.
Suzuki Mighty Boy
Speaking of super compact Kei cars and Suzuki, here’s one oddball for you. Mighty Boy was the only coupe utility car ever sold during the Kei car era. As a commercial vehicle, it benefited from much lower tax requirements, but its towing rates, as you can probably imagine, were rather limited.
The Suzuki Mighty Boy remained in production between 1983 and 1988, and despite having nothing special to offer, developed a cult like following in Japan. It had 543 cc straight-three engine with either 28 horsepower in Japan or 31 horsepower in Australia. Apart from being available in Australia, Mighty Boy also made it to Cyprus. It was the cheapest available vehicle in Oz land, much like Yugo would be in the US a few years later.
But despite its shortcomings, Mighty Boy did have some charms. If being in a league of its own isn’t enough, then imagine it as an oddball helpful ute which it actually is. Or rather was. Aside from already mentioned markets, you’ll be hard-pressed to find the Mighty Boy anywhere else. This cute ute was one of the most economical means of towing light and compact cargo ever devised.
Suzuki and Mazda aren’t the only Japanese automakers with know-how to utilize the gullwing door design. Toyota did it with Sera – a compact sports car produced between 1990 and late 1995. With its uncanny butterfly doors, sweeping glass roofline and sublime flowing lines, the Toyota Sera is one Japanese car we wish was available here in America.
It even had respectable powertrain. 1.5L in-line four taken out of the Corolla was able to generate around 100 horsepower. Plenty of power for a car weighing 2,000 pounds. Sera even came with front disc brakes, rack and pinion power steering and optional anti-lock brakes. A feat that wasn’t yet mandatory back in 1990.
The Toyota Sera quickly gathered a cult following – not only in Japan – but all across the globe. That’s the reason the Toyota was forced to offer the sports car in other markets besides the home market. This makes it more easily acquirable than most other nameplates from the list, but not any less JDM product.
The Mitsuoka Orochi might be one of the most awkward or ugliest, if you will, supercars ever produced, but that doesn’t mean its a bad supercar. To the contrary; Orochi is one rather capable performer with a price tag lower than $100,000. At least back in 2006 when base version got introduced.
A car which derives its name from mythical Japanese dragon (and looks like one too), packs somewhat anemic 230 horsepower. Courtesy of Toyota 3.3L 3MZ-FE V6 mill. Naturally aspirated engine still allows Orochi to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. Over the years, Mitsuoka created numerous special editions with cosmetic changes, tech upgrades and more plushier interior. Although price tag rose considerably, powertrain specs remained in place.
It might look like a mythical dragon from whom it got its name (looks more like a fish to me), but Mitsuoka Orochi would be one amusing addition to the US roads. It certainly would have ruffled a few feathers, but as a car discontinued in 2014, we won’t be able to see it for quite some time.
It might only be a pre-production concept that never made it in this world, but I couldn’t resist bringing it up one more time. It certainly beats the Nissan Pulsar in terms of JDM sex-appeal but is more obscure than the likes of the Nissan Silvia S15. The MID4 is one of the most intriguing supercars we never got. Japanese broke their promise when Nissan pulled the plug on their Ferrari/Porsche fighter, but at least they got something from it. AWD system designed for the concept would find its way into all subsequent all-wheel drive Nissans. Plus, Honda likely used their idea when they embarked on a project called Honda/Acura NSX.
First MID4 concept car from 1985 Frankfurt Auto Show drew its power from 3.0L VG30DE V6 engine. Nissan MID4 II from 1987 Tokyo Motor Show was presented with even more powerful 325-horsepower turbocharged VG30DETT V6 mill.
To this day, Nissan MID4 concepts remain one of automotive what if’s. How would have supercar market looked today had this meticulous concept made production? What would have happened with the Honda NSX? And more importantly, would there be a Nissan Skyline GTR?